“Homosexuality is very common in Pakistan,” Sinaan tells me as the Muslim call to prayer rings out along the streets of Islamabad. “But homosexuality is mostly done by straight guys.”
A professor, Sinaan asked Daily Xtra to change his name to protect his safety and job security.
Pakistan is a world of contrasts: a land of fundamentalist Islam, Osama bin Laden’s hideout, and terrorist attacks, where children are gunned down going to school or accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death. Yet it’s also a land where secular, liberal, young adults socialize by drinking whisky and smoking weed, where you can find used lesbian erotica or buy a dildo on the black market.
These two extremes are nowhere as evident as in the LGBT experience.
Pakistan is an extremely patriarchal, macho culture, with a strict understanding of gender expression and behaviour. Ironically, it’s that culture that enables same-sex relationships to flourish, as long as the participants are discreet.
This is because Pakistan is a homosocial society, as Sinaan puts it, meaning that men can only go out in public or socialize with men, women with women. Male friends can often be seen in twos or threes, holding hands or with an arm affectionately around the other’s waist or neck.
In macho Pakistani culture, having sex with a man — as long as you’re the one penetrating or “the top” — means you are the epitome of machismo. “It makes you super-straight,” says Ali (who asked that only his first name be published). “You’re dominating a guy. Dominating a woman is easy, but you’re dominating a guy. You must be super masculine.”
“I’m going to sodomize you” is a common insult, Ali says, something that fathers would use for their sons, or brothers use for each other. It’s not a sexual threat, but an expression of domination, power and punishment, similar to an English expression like “I’m going to knock your teeth out.”
Some gay men describe Pakistan as a paradise, where sex is always available, especially with men who identify as heterosexual. Sinaan recounts the story of a man he knows, an Ahmadi Muslim, who moved to Canada to avoid religious persecution and now writes to him saying, “I’m in hell.”
In Pakistan it was extremely easy for the man to find macho, straight men to have sex with, Sinaan explains, but in Canada, this is not the case. The man wouldn’t have sex with gay men in Pakistan, Sinaan notes, because he found them too effeminate.
It is perhaps surprising — from the West’s preconceptions about Pakistan — that it is quite easy for men to find each other to socialize, network, and have sex.
Muhammad Moiz says different economic groups use different methods to meet. Lower-class men tend to meet in cruising areas such as parks, bridges or other public spaces, though they are increasingly gaining access to online social and cruising sites too, such as Manjam and Grindr. Male sex workers, known as maalshiyas, who mainly service other men, still tend to frequent the parks, bridges and cruising areas.
Middle- and upper-class men generally prefer to meet online, especially on Facebook. “People log in with fake IDs, as these are mostly open pages,” Moiz says, referring to Facebook.
Despite the ease with which many men hook up with each other for sex, most also describe a more threatening side to life in Pakistan, tempered with beatings, rejection and sometimes even death.
Pakistani law includes provisions against “obscenity” and having “carnal knowledge against the order of nature,” making homosexual acts illegal, although the provisions are rarely enforced as the charges are difficult to prove.
Rather, it is discrimination, police blackmail and brutality, and their own families that are the greatest threat to gay men. “The most a gay man has to fear are his parents and then his brothers,” Ali says.
Some gay men are able to come out to their families and friends. Ali decided he had “to live with a little bit of dignity” and came out. His mother begged him not to tell others, but he did. He lost some friends and it affected him socially, he says, “but that’s fine.”
In Moiz’s case, he thought his father would kill him when he came out, but his father has actually been the most supportive member of his family. His father just doesn’t broach the subject, Moiz explains.
Moiz eventually came out to his entire family a few years ago and, while he was not immediately accepted, he says, “the dust eventually settled because I’m male.”
Others aren’t so lucky.
G, a traditional dancer and son of an imam, says his father would literally kill him if he came out. (G asked that we publish only his initial.)
For his friend S, the situation isn’t so drastic, though his father was ashamed of his effeminate ways growing up. “He never took me anywhere,” says S (who also asked that only his initial be published).
S recalls two friends who tried to come out to their families. The father of one threatened to kill him with a knife, while the other’s father attempted to smother him with a pillow at night.
In Lahore last year, gay men had someone to fear besides their own families. A serial killer began targeting gay men through one of the gay social networking sites, killing three men between March and April 2014. According to Pakistani newspaper Dawn, the killer said he wanted to stop the spread of “this evil” in Pakistani society, though police say he had sex with his victims before killing them.
When they’re not being targeted or rejected by their families, many gay men are forced into marriage. S married at 16 years old, his wife was 14. Now 25, he has four children and lives a double life. While there have been rumours and suspicions from family members, both his and hers, his wife firmly believes that he is straight. But whenever she leaves the house for a few days to visit her mother, he invites over his boyfriends and cooks for them.
Yet he still faces discrimination whenever he is publicly perceived as a gay man. Once, when he took his daughter to hospital, they initially refused to treat her, saying, “He’s a gay with his daughter so go away.”
For some gay men, they are pressured into marriage in order to preserve the honour of their sisters. Sinaan says he “has always been posing as a straight man” because of his parents and two sisters, though his two brothers know the truth and are supportive. In Pakistan’s patriarchal society, if a man brings dishonour to his family by being openly gay, he could destroy his sisters’ chances of a suitable marriage.
The best thing for gay men, Ali believes, is to be completely anonymous in Pakistan, as they’re less likely to be considered a religious threat.
Because being gay is antithetical to being a good Muslim in many people’s eyes, many consider the presence of gay men a threat to society. This is heightened for some by the perception that many of the more liberal, educated, middle- and upper- class gay men are also agnostic or atheist. In a theocracy, for all practical purposes, like Pakistan, this is considered apostasy, which can be tantamount to a death sentence either by legal means or through mob justice.
“It would be a massacre in Pakistan — open war,” says G, when asked about the possibility of changing the laws to decriminalize homosexual acts. It would make gay men visible and therefore a concrete threat in the eyes of the country’s religious powers, he says.
As Ali puts it, gay men in Pakistan just want to live their lives in the relative peace of invisibility. “We’re not here, we’re not queer, don’t get used to it.”